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  • Writer's picturePhilip Blood

Mapping Nazi History

We can see where history happened. In my new book, Birds of Prey, I look at how German soldiers functioned and the ways they used their fighting power in the east. It took ten years to piece this research together.

To make sense of the data, I used GIS (a Geographic Information System) to help reconstruct the stories and create a narrative that does justice to the events of the past. In this post, I’ll explain how this process worked.

Looking for the truth

Let’s take a common problem: a soldier has been killed in combat in the east. His blood-soaked pay-book records where he was buried, but - bearing in mind the lack of physical documents, post-war -it is hard to reconstruct his fighting story. It is virtually impossible to identify where he was killed. I’ve anonymised this man’s details for this example, as I have done in many parts of my book.

However, we do know the soldier was posted to the ancient Polish forest of Bialowieza, in 1943. Once Imperial Russia’s hunting estate, the forest was occupied by the Nazis in June 1941. We also know this man’s job involved serving a hub in the central signals system, which integrated into the national grid.

In 1943, the Luftwaffe printed a map, that shows the area where the soldier served. It’s a political map that illustrates Nazi attitudes towards Hitler’s empire through Grossdeutschland - Hermann Göring’s ideological mission.

It’s a map that shows an area measuring around 256,000 hectares, and - not uncommon for the time - it doesn’t have any map references on it. As a piece of cartography, this particular map was printed for use in the Luftwaffe’s map room, which was located in the organisation’s headquarters, a former Russian palace.

Choosing the right tools

When I started this project, in 2010, there was no GPS navigation that could illuminate that arboreal wilderness. Walking the forest, trying to make comparisons of it with a sector map sheet in one hand and a compass in the other was both fruitless and frustrating. To manage the complex scales involved, and the amount of information I was collecting, we had to create a digital map – something we could use time after time to analyse the data we were collecting.

We knew it would be time-consuming to overlay each new level of data, and to get the alignments right, but Tomasz Samojlik from the Mammal Institute was kind enough to supply map references from the 1920s and advice about the forest terrain. The next step was to start analysing that information.

Geographic Information Systems

When it comes to using GIS, it’s vital to start with the basics. The right projections – the shareable references against which we can draw maps accurately. Back in 2010, we weren’t sure which projections to use, nor did we have firm coordinates for some of the places we wanted to explore, but by 2013 we had started identifying those key points on a digital map. In short, to achieve this, we had to digitise enough information so that we could ‘see’ and understand an area that measured 256,000 hectares. That’s 632,588 acres – a region the same size, more or less, as the English county of Dorset.

The next task was to extract multiple layers of information from the archive material I had collected. This sample illustrates some of the diary entries that were made by the battalion’s 3rd clerk – columns of data we could then use to cross-reference insights.

The statistical data from that diary was then put into an attribute table, from which we could create ‘layers’ of insights by using the software in the GIS.

To explain: a Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-system that uses software to blend specific information from one or more databases with the high, visual impact of a map. GIS lets people create, manage and analyse complex data in a way that makes it easier to reveal new insights – particularly when it comes to where things are happening, may happen, or have happened in the past.

This GIS work brought together 35 layers of detailed information, and made it possible for us to visualise what was happening in this area on a map.

Mapping the events

Initially, we used coloured roundels – zones that identified movements of patrols, companies and even the actions of individuals. This is an example of 1st/2nd companies and patrols, and areas they were operating in on 7th September 1942.

However, by February 1943 the battalion had increased to 6 companies. More than one patrol appeared to be working in each area – we had the primary data that explained who was where, when – and this meant the GIS analysis created overlapping clusters of information.

It became hard to see which missions were the primary ones, and which might be patrols on supporting expeditions. Still, when we created a layer that showed where Soviet partisans had been killed (red crosses on this map), we could see just how far these patrols had been going into the forest, engaging with the Germans (they didn’t always lose).

This was a steep learning curve. What’s interesting here, is that – by gleaning these insights, by using location data to ‘see’ these events at different scales – opinions of what was happening on the ground changes, based on existing literature. Along the way, we also realised GIS has its limitations. When too many layers of information converged in the same place, the resulting ‘hot spots’ of colour made it hard to understand what we were seeing.

In this case, for example, below, the map is highlighting places in which we found evidence of mass deportations, destruction of villages, and the Holocaust by bullets.

This 'noise' forced us to turn to maps that we could visualise in black and white. It became clear this was the right decision when we tested a combined colour and black-and-white map with many layers, to explain how a battalion of 634 troops patrolled 256,000 hectares of forest.

We had the data that showed - after each patrol - the group was directed to move on and join a different company, rather than return to their home company, thus continually extending the range and power of the unit. This map visualised areas in which we saw evidence of operational training, Auftragstaktik, and the killing of defenceless Jews.

The ‘smoking gun’ here (the concept of Bandenbekämpfung) was clearly being adopted through training in the homeland, thus extending the Holocaust by Bullets – but still, this map (below) was too cluttered for the book.

Finding answers

Returning to focus on the dead soldier, we created a map that would illustrate the positions of two soldiers that we knew had been killed in action. Then, by using GIS, and working through the layers of information we’d collated, we could identify the precise location where they were killed and buried.

Historical GIS is a huge asset when it comes to revealing small unit methods and measuring performance – it can bring events to life by showing exactly where things happened, which lets us explore the motives and mechanics of those situations in full.

In all, there are 22 maps in the book. 18 of those are visualisations that were generated by using GIS – and these served as a robust platform from which to conduct a much deeper examination of the Luftwaffe as a Nazi organisation.

By using GIS, we identified the movements of German forces, moving into the Bialowieza forest on the 12th September 1939. They moved out eight days later, to be replaced by the Red Army. German armour had cut through the forest rapidly, revealing it’s lack of density, and in June 1941, Göring deployed his foresters, the SS and Police to crush the region.

We then generated a map that would show the extent of deportations, killings and destruction – this is all done by drawing from primary sources, and correlating that evidence by using a simple ‘thread of truth’: location.

GIS - for when you can't see the wood for the trees

In September 1942, the forest came under the jurisdiction of Luftgau1, in Königsberg, but it was under the direct command of Hermann Göring. Designated as a homeland sector, the forest became an area that was secured by troops under operational training – troops drawn from local training bases – and within a short period, those troops were conducting Bandenbekämpfung operations.

Their capability was increasing, although most of the men would be passed off to full operations flying, other ground troops or specialist functions like signals; there was no primary group ethos here.

Thanks to advice from Ben Nock , of the Military Wireless Museum, we managed to reconstruct the signals network to explain how the hub functioned. This wireless capability partly explained why the patrols were so well coordinated.

In July 1944, the final dispositions could be mapped prior to Operation Bagration. The battalion, its minus commander, had fought its way back to Germany. SS tanks had burst into the forest to assist the withdrawal, and departed to attack the palace, having crossed the river.

The last troops gathered at Hajnowka station, but it was here that they also came under heavy Soviet rocket barrages. Bitter fighting, before they withdrew. Repeatedly attacked by tanks, they only managed to survive as a unit with serious losses.

Finally, the dead soldier can be restored to history, as he and his comrades are shown to be buried in a purpose-built German military cemetery in Poland. A stone in Bialowieza marks the execution place where the Luftwaffe publicly killed Jews, Poles and Soviet partisans.


In Birds of Prey, I’ve included a full aide mémoire that explains how we used GIS to create this narrative . There’s also a full explanation of the ‘microhistory’ model we adopted throughout, to handle the absence of Luftwaffe archival records.

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